Watching the riders cresting over the Pyrenees and cameras panning over pristine châteaux grounds, I forgot momentarily how gruelling is le Tour de France. This past weekend, while they zipped through Bordeaux, I caught glimpses of familiar sights of the city. Rising crosswinds picked up, as did the riders’ tempos, and with gaps closing in between them, the battle continued! All this drama played out against the backdrop of classical and neoclassical architecture and triggered memories of my trip there last winter.
I had been so impressed with this majestic city and was surprised to learn that it hadn’t always shown itself in this light. In fact, residents claim that until recently, it was soot-covered, lifeless, and long past its prime. (I roll my eyes in disbelief) However, in the last 10+years, thanks to the leadership and visionary efforts of mayor Alain Juppé, the city has undergone an urban project yielding tremendous improvements: cleaning and restoration of building façades; rezoning of urban areas; development of the quays along the Garonne river; and the commissioning of a new light rail system that now weaves through the city, its tracks seamlessly integrated with plaza and pavement. It’s so quiet; you have to be careful that it doesn’t sneak up behind you. Goes to show what effective collaboration of interested parties does: architects, town planners, historians, researchers worked together and jointly with Monsieur Le Maire to renovate the waterfront and beautify the splendid buildings, some of them from medieval times.
Bordeaux is on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites and, as I’ve read “has more protected buildings/historic monuments than any other French city except Paris.” No doubt being featured on ‘The List’ has had a highly beneficial impact on tourism. The draw for me, however, was the cultural appeal of this stony French city and I loved the promenades, parks, tree-lined squares, and the grass-filled tram tracks along the waterfront (they’re lucky they don’t have to deal with salt).
One of the visit’s highlights, as with all French experiences, encompassed food and drink while pique-nique-ing on the boardwalk one sunny February day. We strolled along the quay on the Left Bank of the Garonne River where the famous Bordeaux Fête le Vin, France’s top wine tourism event, takes place in the summer. Though windy, people were out en masse. At a long line of outdoor market stalls, we got a few glasses for 1euro apiece and to accompany, a baguette, some Camembert and sausage. The intention wasn’t to get liquored up in the company of my parents, but they too appreciate ‘la bonne vie.’ I wish the same informal outdoor sipping could be done here in North America…
Since we were in the hood, we made a quick jaunt over to St. Emilion, a picturesque village just 35 km northeast. On a very grey day, we explored its fascinating underground catacombs, Romanesque churches and ruins stretching all along steep and narrow streets. Not to harp but, this being mid-February, it wasn’t particularly animated and the cold travelled right through us. Instead of trying one of the specialty fine wines from this historic vineyard landscape, we shockingly stopped for hot chocolate.
Back in Bordeaux, I insisted on making one last stop – La Maison Calvet – a winery with my same name. I cannot claim to have any direct family heritage per se but proudly showed my i.d. and they were more than happy to give me a tour of the cellar and a visit of an authentic wine merchant house.
Having gotten a taste of the life of a ‘bon vivant’, I think I was more than sufficiently inspired to make a return trip to visit the bountiful wine regions of France, to study more closely the Aquitaine region in the southwest. But why stop there? Why limit myself? I might just have to follow it up with the Loire valley, Burgundy, etc…